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Colloquium: Life Configurations

April, 2-4, 2012 Lujn, Buenos Aires, Argentina UNSAM

The Conditions for a Comparison: Reflections at the Crossroads of Chinese and Latin American Studies1
Pablo Ariel BLITSTEIN (Argentina) Collge de France CEMECH Universidad Nacional de San Martn The purpose of this article is to explore the conditions of possibility of establishing comparisons. To what extent a culture or a tradition determine the choice of the objects of study and the development of different forms of reflection? On the basis of some reflections about a comparison between Chinese and Latin American lettered traditions, I show that the possibility of a comparison is linked to the configuration of relationships in which the subject is immersed: that is, instead of taking culture as an aprioristic starting point for a comparison, I attempt to offer an answer from a microanalitical, configurative and generative approach of the historians experience. This approach will allow me to address how a historian determines his relation with other men from other times and geographies: a relation that, far from being established under the terms of nations, cultures or traditions, is generated in each local experience of appropriation of discourses and objects. It is precisely in this work of appropriation (of which the comparison is just a way among others) where the historian integrates past and present and shapes the future configurations of the appropriations of the past. Some time ago, when I was starting my Ph.D. on medieval Chinese men of letters, I read a classic of Latin American cultural history, The Lettered City, by Angel Rama. I had heard about this book some years earlier, at the University of Buenos Aires, when I was finishing my degree in classical languages. Since I hadnt had time to read it until that moment I had already decided to devote myself to Chinese history and I wanted to finish my degree and since at the beginning of my Ph.D. research I needed inspiration, I felt that even though the book dealt with a very distant tradition, it could give me some hints to enrich my reflections about the Chinese men of letters. I was surprised to find out that Latin American men of letters were similar to Chinese ones, even more than I had

The original language of this paper is French. I want to thank the staff of the UNSAM for this English translation.

imagined! They shared an analogous devotion for writing, an analogous mixture of bureaucracy and humanism, analogous representations of political power, analogous conflicts with power. And I was even more surprised when I found out that Rama asserted in the 80s that the intellectual Latin American tradition had its roots in the colonial man of letters (letrado), while in the same way Yu Yingshi said in his book The shi and the Chinese Culture that the Chinese intellectual had its roots in the man of letters (shi) of imperial times2. A year later I was attending a seminar about global history organized by Laurent Berger and Anne-Christine Trmon at the ENS-EHESS; later, I attended one of Serge Gruzinskis seminars at the EHESS, devoted to the interactions between merchants coming from the Portuguese and Spanish Empires and Chinese literati under Ming dynasty; and at the same time I discussed these ideas with an Argentinian colleague, Ana Hosne specialist on the Society of Jesus who had made similar considerations about the two lettered traditions. This association of ideas finally resulted in a research project with the purpose of comparing the two literate traditions, both from the point of view of social history and from the point of view of cultural and intellectual history. But new questions appeared. Was it true that we had discovered two analogous traditions? Or was it simply an illusion? And even if it was not an illusion, why were we comparing these two literate traditions? Finally, regarding the contemporary Latin American intellectual, was I really an heir of the tradition of the colonial Latin American letrado? Or was this idea an illusion too? It wasnt at all a question about Latin American identity or Chinese alterity: it was about understanding which ways lead to a comparison in social sciences, as well as the reasons why we want to use comparisons in the framework of the production of historical knowledge. It is indeed on producing this knowledge that the historian creates a link with the dead, in a specific time and place, and that he takes a decision about the ways under which these dead will be judged in the future.

Ways of comparing We could think of several ways of establishing a comparison. We could compare, for example, in the framework of a classification of the phenomena in genres and species, as it is often done in social

I dont use man of letters as a translation of letrado or shi. I use it here as an etic category that refers to the mastery of reading and writing of these two different historical characters.

sciences. This classification is very useful when we want to identify the specificity of something: in order to know what makes something unique or different, we compare it with other things which look alike. This sort of comparison can also be established between a real object and an imaginary one: it is the case of the judgment of possibility, which consists on producing a counterfactual hypothesis in order to compare actual facts to possible ones and to identify the causes of the actual facts 3. The object of this comparison could be the colonial man of letters, but it could also be a farmer, a trader, or men of letters from different periods in Chinese history. But there are other ways of comparing. We could use the comparison in order to identify in the phenomena under study aspects which I havent thought of. For example, in the case of the mastery of writing as a mark of status something shared both by the Chinese and Latin American men of letters I can search in the studies about the Latin American men of letters ideas that, by analogy, could give some ideas to better understand the Chinese men of letters. Since there is no human phenomenon identical to another, analogies between ideas and, therefore, between the historical realities conveyed in these ideas can help me deepen my reflections, even if the objects under study are different. An anthropologist knows this problem very well when he goes to fieldwork: he develops his reflections in a tradition of studies where the analyzed objects are always different from his own. In this form of comparison, what takes the first place isnt the classification in genres and species. Rather, it is the comparison between phenomena that for some reason turn out to be analogous or not. I could also mention other forms of comparison. In the seminar I attended some years ago, Serge Gruzinski talked about Portuguese merchants who traveled to China at the beginning of the XVI century, and who felt confused in front of a huge administrative apparatus they didnt understand. At the opposite side of these Portuguese merchants, in his work The Four Parts of the World, Gruzinski analizes the case of Matteo Ricci, who, some decades after the Portuguese, had fewer problems to understand the Chinese lettered elite. Anyway, the comparison between Portuguese merchants and Chinese literati, or between Ricci and a man of letters like Li Zhi, is less the result of an analogy in the scholars mind than a result of a practical problem of these persons in their social experience. Why did they understand each other? To what extent did they understand each other? Or what is it they didnt understand, and also to what extent they didnt? A comparison between the two social worlds that were interacting in this encounter turns out to be unavoidable if we want to understand the dimension of the problems of communication that these men might have faced. In this case, the idea is to make a comparative history out of a connected history: two histories that were until

See Weber, Max, Objektive Mglichkeit und adquate Verursachung in der historischen Kausalbetrachtung , in Schriften zur Wissenschaftslehre, Tbingen: Mohr, 1988.

that precise moment taking place far away from each other, and that converged in the encounter of two persons in a specific place and time. Finally, a last example of a way of making comparisons: the comparison made within the framework of sociology or general history. It is the case, for example, of the sociology of Max Weber, either his sociology of religions where he studies the compatibility of the dominant religious ethics with the development of a rational bourgeois capitalism or his general sociology Economy and Society where he attempts to build ideal types of social action, of domination, of bureaucracy and of patrimonial bureaucracies (where we can include both the Latin American man of letters and the Chinese man of letters), etc. Regarding our own research project about the men of letters, we could have followed weberian general sociology: to settle a general category of the man of letters built out of the common features shared by any historical figure whom we could consider a man of letters and to look for the specificities in each particular case. But the problems inherent to Webers approach are clear: we run the risk of distorting the phenomena under study, since nothing guarantees that what in China was called shi is the same as a Latin American letrado. Instead of understanding the historical persons placed in particular historical contexts, we run the risk of projecting an ideal type on realities that do not coincide with it, and of fostering the illusion that a shi and a letrado are one and the same thing. It is clear that a comparison becomes unavoidable in the case of a connected history such as Gruzinskis. But in the rest of the cases I mentioned, where the real historical connection cant be found, the difficulties in making comparisons seem to be insurmountable. In the two first cases the comparison by genres and species and the comparison by analogies, comparative history could become arbitrary: after all, comparisons between two objects could just consist on the arbitrary associations of the scholars mind. So if comparisons face these risks, should we avoid comparative history when it is impossible to establish a historical connection? Do we have to suppose that we cannot compare two heterogeneous phenomena?4 Nevertheless, all the comparisons I mentioned have not only been undertaken, but they have also been the beginning of a long tradition of comparative history. Connected history, comparative history

This problem doesnt only belong to the comparative method. Each time we try to build any category, we are forced to melt in this category realities that dont match with the definition. This is the reason why the entire category is simply the instrument and not the end of an investigation, and so the scholar must submit his own categories to a constant criticism; criticism which, ultimately, is simply the historicization of these categories. When the criticism disappears, and the categories become the last aim of the investigation, we are in the dark where all cats are grey.

Lets think for while about the example of Webers sociology, that I propose to analyze here just because it has been (and still is) a reference both for Latin American and Chinese historians. When Weber started his project of a general sociology, he needed to build supporting points: his ideal types. Today, those ideal types are part of a scientific tradition that has expanded all over the world, from China to Latin America. When a historian wants to study the historical type that corresponds to the category of patrimonial official5 (it would be the case of the Chinese shi or of the Latin American letrado), he usually applies to his research the ideal types that Weber defined almost a century ago, as well as the particular cases covered by this category; on the other hand, when a scholar criticizes that category, he usually analyses it to find in it discordant elements. But whether the objective is submissive acceptance or radical criticism, the beginning is always the same: the historical connections that Weber has defined with a category, assembling subtypes that are far away from each other in space and time, such as the Russian chinovnichestvo, the French nobility of the robe or the Chinese mandarins. The Weberian scholar or the scholar who criticises Weber both participate, then, in the history of the development of the category patrimonial official, that is to say, in the history of the intellectual connections which have made possible the existence of this ideal type. Maybe without knowing it, submissive acceptation and radical criticism are both part of a connected history: the history which connects the Chinese patrimonial official with the patrimonial officials from other places and other times of universal history. In the writings of Weber, in these texts from the beginning of the 20th Century, there is a real connection of phenomena taken out of the universal history (phenomena linked to the patrimonial official), even if we think that this connection is wrong. Arent the connections between a Matteo Ricci and a Li Zhi and the connections between different sources in the mind of a sociologist of the beginning of the 20th century both connections that take place in a particular place and time in human history? Arent both connections an assemblage of materials inherited from history literate education in the case of Ricci and Li Zhi, written sources in the case of the imagination of a sociologist that are gathered by the experience of persons
As an example, we can mention Yu Yingshi o Yan Buke , who, not being weberian, make use of weberian categories. In his research about the philosophical breakthrough in preimperial China, Yu Yingshi deals with problems that come from Webers sociology of religions in the way they were formulated by Talcott Parsons. See, for instance, Yu Yingshi, Shi yu zhongguo wenhua (Shi and Chinese culture), Beijing: Beijing daxue chubanshe, 2003, pp. 19-25. Yan Buke uses the weberian category of patrimonial official for the history of Imperial China; see Yan Buke, Zhongguo gudai guanjie zhidu yinlun (Discussions about the system of administrative hierarchies in ancient China), Beijing: Beijing daxue chubanshe, 2010, pp. 65-66. For the case of Latin America, a recent book by Rodrigo Ricupero proposes a study on patrimonialism in colonial Brasil. But Sergio Buarque de Hollanda has already made a study on the patrimonial official in colonial Brasil. See Rodrigo Ricupero, A formao da elite colonial. Brasil c. 1530 c. 1630, So Paulo: Alameda, 2009, pp. 42-49; Sergio Buarque de Hollanda, Razes do Brasil, So Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1995 [1ra ed. 1936], pp. 145-146.

historically situated? Could Weber have even conceived his patrimonial official if he had not had some kind of experience, mediated or not, with the traces this patrimonial official left in history? The case of Webers categories is in fact the case of our language: it is not possible to start a comparison from scratch, because all of our representations are built with the aid of language, and every language has a history of its own. I shouldnt assume that there are no pre-existing supporting points in my mind that allow me to establish a comparison. There is always something in my head, there are always representations which precede the possibility of starting a comparison. How would I be able to associate as my colleagues in our research project do Chinese and Latin American literate traditions without at least having a notion of what I would recognize in one or in the other? If we come back to what I have said at the beginning of this article, we will see that, in the first place, I have simply followed a word, the French word lettr, a translation of the Chinese word shi (rather problematic, to tell the truth) and an equivalent but not always a true equivalent of the Spanish word letrado. This is what has allowed me to establish a first connection: a word, a word with a history associated to certain representations. Second connection: once I read The Lettered City, I discovered the affinities between the Chinese men of letters and the Latin American men of letters. With their differences, there were also aspects, ideas, similar cultures, which thanks to analogy enabled me to notice these affinities. As a consequence, can we say that there is no connection between the colonial Latin American letrado and the Chinese medieval shi? There certainly is one connection: it is me, my colleagues, everyone who has established this connection. Only when I have activated these two pieces of knowledge, when I have activated these two representations really present in my mind, only then can I make a comparison between the two lettered traditions. The elements to compare were already there, in my mind, and if they were there, actually present in me, it is because a group of institutions from Buenos Aires to Beijing were already connected in my person. Thus every comparative history implies a real connection: the connection takes place in the person where all these forms of representation sociological categories, words or analogies get together and are actualized. Institutional, political and social relationships make divergent histories converge in one point, in one person, and that person is the result of the connection of those relations. A comparative history always implies the possibility of a connected history: the connected history of the representations which are gathered in the scholars mind on the basis of his social experience. The problem of alterity

Some culturalist ideas lead us to think that the comparisons can only be established between national or regional traditions: in our case, China and Latin America. But since the connections between representations take place in the head of a historical person, the objects to compare dont necessarily coincide with national or regional traditions: we can compare groups, institutions, characters or ideas, and find maybe more analogies between a medieval Chinese man of letters and a Latin American man of letters from colonial times than between the same Chinese man of letters and a Chinese farmer from the same time, or between this man of letters and a Chinese nobleman of the Warring States period, or even between the man of letters and a modern businessman that is to say, between members of the same (hypothetical) tradition or culture. In fact, most of those differences are not necessarily linked to the traditions and cultures; the differences can be contiguous, can be contemporary, can even coexist in the same person. We usually see that traditions or cultures (as well as nations and civilisations) are dealt with in an exclusively typological way: traditions and cultures are typified according to common features, and then the method of comparison is used to identify the differences and the affinities between them. Thus China and Latin America would have more affinities because they are peripheral regions or because they are members of the Third World, or they would be radically different because they are members of two different cultures: the western culture and the Chinese culture. But those typologies run the risk of essentializing traditions and cultures. If we reduced differences and affinities to typologies, if we considered these typologies the pivot of a comparison between China and Latin America, we would fail to acknowledge the multiple historical connections between these two geographies, their interdependences, the internal discontinuities of these typified traditions and cultures and, finally, the isomorphisms between the two. The use of typological thought as the only way to establish a comparison risks to end in an essentialization of the objects of those typologies. To reduce cultures and traditions to typologies has another consequence: it leads to consider that traditions and cultures determine the way their members understand the world. According to this idea, the limits and the possibilities of certain uses of language by the members of a culture are sometimes identified with a whole culture, so that they seem to be the basis of an opposition between culturally determined we and they. Comparison is then conceived as a way out from a specific culture to enter into another culture which is considered as foreign meaning a substantial alterity. China would be a way out for a Latin American intellectuals horizons of thought. But that which looks foreign is not necessarily an other, and the typical traits conceptualized as culture are never homogeneous enough to be considered a cause in its own right of a homogeneous world view. Cultures are not something perfectly coherent, without internal

breaches, without conflicts, without discrepancies, perfectly homogeneous, as if they were macroindividuals that determine the actions of men. The idea according to which cultures create homogenous worldviews is the projection of an ideology that is inherent to the modern order of Nation-States: the idea that nations have established their borders on the basis of insurmountable cultural differences that determine the ways of understanding the world. However, cultures do not coincide with the limits imposed by political borders or by geography. The word culture, in fact, is just a way to refer to a series of social relations that go beyond those borders, that are unequal and that have different meanings for the persons implied in those relations, within and beyond borders. Besides, regarding the problem of alterity, nothing guarantees that the elements of a foreign culture, even under a radically different appearance, are really different when one gets to know them deeply: the Same is often found under the appearance of an Other. Even if the elements typified under the word culture are considered as foreign or other, they cease to be foreign or other once I have known and understood them. Once I have known something different, that something becomes part of my representations: it is no longer an unknown, strange thing, but it is part of me. I have been modified by this culture, or at least by certain elements of what I consider a culture: this culture becomes a part of myself, because I establish a link with the configuration of relations that I conceptualize as a culture. To say it in other words: when I know something, that something isnt something foreign anymore, it is no longer an other, in the same way as, when I was at school, math had ceased to be foreign or other to me. Consequently, alterity, or rather the experience of alterity (since it is an experience), is generally produced in the framework of ignorance. One can have the impression of alterity when one reads for the first time a text in Chinese, but once one has learned this language, once Chinese is part of the knowledge of a person, the experience of alterity with the language has finished. In my case, the experience of alterity with medieval Chinese men of letters has disappeared; of course, there are many things that I ignore, and many things that will remain hidden forever, but the idea of facing something radically different doesnt exist any longer. On the contrary, when I wanted to read (maybe looking for other sources of alterity) a text on the Latin American intellectuals, I realized that my knowledge about these intellectuals was much poorer than my knowledge about the medieval Chinese shi, and that these men of letters from my own tradition were more others than the men of letters from distant China. After an experience with both, the impression of alterity that Latin American and Chinese men of letters gave me in the beginning evolved into just an experience of their specificity, and not of a radical other. A comparison that implies a radical difference between traditions (as some culturalist discourses do about civilizations), that doesnt problematize the elements of comparison of these traditions, that doesnt put into question the continuity of these

traditions in other words, a comparison that considers a typified culture an a priori of world views runs the risk of reifying cultures and traditions and of essentializing the experience of alterity. 6

Conclusion: How to appropriate comparison? How should we compare? We shouldnt give a definitive answer to this question in order to settle a definitive role for the methodology of comparison. Comparisons appear in different contexts and according to different needs; they shouldnt precede the experience of knowledge itself. As a starting point for any comparison, we should make a radical historicization of the person who makes the comparison, that is to say, of ourselves: it is the historical person (I who think and have a history) who is the source of any possible comparison. This is why a comparison should go hand in hand with the historicization of its framework of application: a historicization of the words, categories and discourses I use when comparing. I have picked these words, categories and discourses out of my social experience, and so my knowledge activity (including eventual comparisons) is conditioned by this experience. Besides, this historicization should be accompanied, as the anthropologists do, by a historicization of the ecologies that have made me what I am as a person: that is to say, a history of the conditions of possibility of my own representations. After all, every comparison is an appropriation of two phenomena, near or distant, which are not necessarily contiguous and which nevertheless converge in the mind of a historian. When a person compares different social worlds that are far away from each other in time and space, these worlds converge in one single history without losing their singularity: they converge in the experience itself singular of a person who makes the comparison based on his experience. In other words: when a person makes a comparison, he does not face different worlds that are alien to him, but faces a history in which he participates. By thinking and acting, he keeps on producing that history. To compare is also to generate a link in the present: it is not only a way of studying history, but also of producing it. If universal history can be thought of as a whole, and not only as a history of nations, it is because in the last centuries the experience of men has been enriched with elements coming from different geographies and different social interactions. A historical reflection that doesnt take into account this experience is doomed to fall into archaic paradigms. It is indeed in the intellectual activity of each person where different social worlds converge, where national traditions disappear

I am not suggesting a return to the ancient discourses about the universality of human nature and a reduction of the differences between men to a common ground. I suggest that we should look at human history as a unity of different located experiences and that we should avoid, at the same time, ready-made typologies about cultural differences.


and lose their meaning, where new historical connections are produced. In a world where the isolation of the populations turns to be almost impossible, it is in the intellectual activity of each person, in the heterogeneity of experience, where one can see the archaic character of culturalist representations of alterity.


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